WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama traveled to Capitol Hill on Tuesday for a rare meeting with Senate Republicans, but the 75-minute session yielded little progress on hot-button topics and left some senators with bruised feelings.
"He needs to take a Valium before he comes in and talks to Republicans," Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., told reporters. "He's pretty thin-skinned."
Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., described the meeting as "testy," and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., called it a "lively discussion." Others questioned whether the "symbolism" of Obama's approach matched the actions of his congressional Democratic allies.
In his first meeting with the Senate Republican caucus in a year, Obama came to the Capitol hoping to secure support on a broad range of issues, including immigration. As he left, he said, "We had a good, frank discussion on a whole range of issues."
But his spokesman, Robert Gibbs, acknowledged that little agreement was reached. "Obviously, there were continued differences on some of these issues. But the president believes that direct dialogue is better than posturing, and he was pleased to have the opportunity to share views with the conference," Gibbs said.
Brownback said Obama explained several times he was "under pressure from his left" on major issues, including climate change. Obama asked Republicans to be willing to take some of the same criticism from their right flank in working toward bipartisan accords, other senators said.
The most contentious moment came during an exchange between Obama and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., his 2008 presidential rival, over immigration. "I said we needed to secure the border first," McCain recounted. But, according to several senators, Obama argued in favor of a comprehensive bill that also provided a pathway to citizenship for illegal residents, similar to the legislation that McCain backed in 2007.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has worked on immigration and energy legislation with the White House, said he urged Obama to step back from a push on immigration legislation and instead go for a scaled-back energy bill. The oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico has doomed the chances of passing a comprehensive bill that would include more offshore drilling and a cap on carbon emission, he said.
And Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., still smarting over his failed negotiations with Democrats over the financial regulation bill the Senate approved last week, said he challenged Obama on his request for bipartisan cooperation. Corker questioned "the audacity" of Obama's asking for Republican help after talks on financial reform broke down.